Text and pictures © 2004-2014 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2013/07/29
"The sun is bright and the powder bitchin'." — Author Unknown.
Left: A dicey jump off a small cliff barring the descent of a couloir at La Grave.
Right: Vincent all white after falling off the cliff in a comic-book way (let's just say Will Coyote with skis and leave it at that).
Left: Looking for the perfect snow couloir. Now is that left or right ?
Right: One of the major summit of the southern Alps, La Meije looms above skiers of the small town of La Grave.
In the small mountain village of La Grave, off-piste skiing is not only allowed, it's actually the only way down once you get off the cable car ! The main valley is an easy way down, but there are plenty of couloirs and glacier shortcuts accessible directly, and if you bring the skins the choice of hard to extreme descents is staggering. Many americans come here year long for the layback attitude of the small village and its excellent powder snow. Unfortunately all this comes at the price of risk via avalanches, seracs, unexpected rock cliffs and getting lost down complex descents in poor visibility.
Left: Snowboarding a steep couloir.
Right: Some steep skiing down one of the numerous couloirs.
First time I went there was with Vincent and his cousins. Barely off the ski-lift, he gets us to climb a small ridge and start skiing down a steep slope. One of the problems of a place such as La Grave is that there are always many good skiers looking for new ways down. As soon as we started 4 other people started following... with everyone ending up stuck above a small but unexpected cliff. Vincent slides down carefully to the very edge of the cliff, decides it cannot be skied and is a little too awkward to jump, so he takes the skis off and starts downclimbing. Next thing I know he's cartwheeling into the air and land in a 'poof!' of powder snow. Once the quality of the landing established (hah!), we all jump off, but this time keeping the skis on.
Right: Group of skiers stopping for a snack in view of La Meije.
Left: Steep couloir skiing at La Grave.
If you happen to be in La Grave, it might be worth it to hire a guide for the day to enjoy many of its secret spots. Particularly if you are a good skier.
Left: If you look closely at the image, you'll see tracks coming down just about everywhere, even in the steepest rock or serac sections.
Right: Going down from the Lauze Pass. The vallon du Diable and its famed icefalls is right underneath.
Left: Going towards the Replat of the Selle Glacier.
Right: Looking back on the Selle Glacier.
Left: Below the short mixed section leading up the Rateau pass.
Right: And ski down the other side of the Rateau pass...
Left: ...where we find a steep and icy section.
Right: Down the Rateau pass under the mighty Meije.
Left: At this point it's either go down (and therefore up) another 500m or traverse across shitty sections of exposed warm snow.
Right: Dicey conversions trying to avoid rocks above a jump.
Left: Time for a snack before we put the skins back on the skis for the final ascent to the Meije pass.
Right: The avalanche cone under this icefall doesn't mean it's now safe: in half an hour a big one will come down !
Above: Panorama of the west and south face of the Meije as we ski up towards the pass.
Left: Largish avalanche falling from the Rateau. Yes, the tiny spots are people very near.
Right: All day military helicopters went back and forth around the Promontoire hut doing 'exercises'. I guess it's their god-given right to ignore the fact that in a National Park motor flights are forbidden, and it certainly didn't look like a rescue operation nor a hut restocking mission.
Left: Rappelling down from the pass: 35m of loose rock covered in powder snow.
Right: Mister the guide is at his 20th straight day in a row ski-mountaineering, and hard to follow with so much training.
Left: Start of the Enfetchores descent. In local dialect 's'enfetcher' means to get lost !
Right: The steeper section of the descent, fortunately in good powder snow.
Left: The bottom part is a bit tricky, requiring some traverses in order to avoid cliffs.
Right: Vincent and Cecile under the descent.
Right: The crux section of the Enfetchores approach to the Meije, as used when coming up from La Grave. Yes, that ugly glacier on the right is what we skied in the above images...
Left: Jenny on the crux section of the Enfetchores ridge, good rock but exposed 4th class climbing.
Right: On the Meije glacier, below the north face of La Meije. One of the ice gully actually looks to be in decent conditions.
Left: Reaching the Promontoire hut can be done easily from the very isolated village of La Bérarde, or from La Grave. In this case you need to avoid getting lost on the Enfetchores ridge, negotiate the crevasses of the Meije glacier and then sweat it off the poor rock leading to and back down the other side of the pass, from where this image is taken. The west face is clearly visible, leading to the 'Grand Doigt' above, but the classic route is the traverse taking the ridge visible on the right side of the mountain.
Right: A vertical panorama taken on 'Nous partirons dans l'ivresse' an excellent an gently rated route on the west face of La Meije: 12 pitches of 5+/6a.
Left: A view on the west face of La Meije, with a bunch of very tiny climbers on the very classic traverse.
Above: 360° panorama taken from the helipad of the Promontoire refuge, below the south face of La Meije.
Left: End of the 2nd pitch of 'La Reine de la Nuit' at the Duhamel Pyramid below La Meije.
Right: 6c traverse on 'La Reine de la Nuit'.
Left: Jenny on the good route La Reine de la Nuit, with the pass known as La Brèche de la Meije, a short but ugly and very much used pass of loose dusty rock, in the back.
Right: Jenny on the summit of the Duhamel Pyramid, with the Grand Doigt and the real summit of La Meije behind.
Right: A view on the normal route of the Meije traverse, as seen from the summit of the Duhamel pyramid, a much lower sub-summit. Two climbers can actually be (barely) seen retreating off the route.
Right: A view on the Etançon valley and the Replat (3442m) from the higher La Meije.
Right: Coming down the Etançon glacier with still a long way to go down the Etançon valley until reaching the tiny outpost of La Bérarde. We got there at 21:00, hungry and without a ride back to the car. We were lucky to (1) find a restaurant still open and (2) figure out that the waiter was riding back in the same direction as ourselves 15 minutes later. The entire village is actually off limits 6 months a year due to avalanches on the road. The summits on the left are the Pavé (3823m), Grande Ruine (3765m) and Pic Nord des Cavales (3362m).
Right: The impressive south face of La Meije, with the Promontoire Hut on the outcrop dominating the middle of the image. Even though it's september and quite late in the season, there's still water running down the south face. The west face is on the left.
Above: The Meije, the Rateau and the domes dominating the grassy Emparis plateau, seen from the Grandes Rousses.
Right: Not much snow at the start of the Vallon du Diable. It seems very dry to go for a steep couloir in those conditions...
Left: Passing under a good-looking Burlan couloir we are already thinking about doing it in the afternoon after the Gandoliere. A bit presumptuous maybe.
Left: Upper part of the Vallon du Diable, just under the Selle hut. The Gandoliere couloir is barely visible up and right from the skiers. In the back, on the left side is the 'Replat' which one takes to do the tour of the Rateau (see above).
Right: Going up the lower slopes of the Gandoliere.
Left: The slopes of the Gandoliere, in cardboard snow.
Right: Finally we see the couloir itself and we start the deeper and softer snow.
Left: Jordi late on the ascent
Right: Upper part of the couloir, too steep to ski up.
Left: The summit (actually it's a pass), Ago and Benoit enjoying the sun while they wait for us.
Left: The Barre des Ecrins seen from the Gandoliere.
Right: Starting the descent in a solid 45 degree slope.
Left: A few nervous turns for Agostino.
Right: Jordi in the steeper upper section.
Left: Jordi farther down.
Right: End of the steep section.
Left: The lower slopes.
Right: Going up to the Replat to enjoy the sun after we froze all day in that northern couloir.
Left: Agostino as the tiny dot running up the Tête Nord du Replat.
Right: A few days later with Jenny, going up the Vallon du Diable again, this time with the Burlan as an objective for me, and the Replat for her.
Left: Hundreds of Z's going up the steep Burlan.
Right: A major rockfall visible in the Lavey valley. Can you spot the hut ? Hint: it's only a few feet from the end of the rockfall !
Left: The start of the descent of the Burlan: 50m of rock with a sprinkle of snow on top, then I put the skis on and almost fall immediately after hitting a hidden rock. 50 degrees at the start, so not something that you want to come down head first.
Right: Avalanche in the lower Vallon du Diable.
Left: A panoramic view of the south face of the Meije in winter, taken on a different date from the Grande Ruine. The pass 'Breche de la Meije' is visible on the far left.
Right: Vincent on the 1st pitch of Grand Clot
Left: Vincent coming up to the 2nd pitch of Grand Clot, a pitch built entirely of onion-skin covered medusas.
Right: Stas on the 1st pitch of Phantasme in good conditions.
La Grave is one of the classic ice climbing areas in France. Plenty of ice, the left side of the valley often in good conditions, the right side often in poor conditions due to the sun. In 2011 I almost got crushed by a 30m pillar that fell from 2 pitches higher up while I was on the 2nd pitch of a classic that suddenly got in full sun...
Left: 2nd pitch of Phantasme.
Right: A good view on the most sought after icefall in France: La Pisse. It very rarely freezes, has too much water, gets too much sun, collapses easily due to smooth rock and has been climbed only a handful of times.
Left: Climbers on Erection.
Right: Stas on the harder left side of Erection.
Left: Working up a roof on Erection.
Right: Ago, Panta and Benoit on our way up to the south face of La Meije. It's normally a 5 hours walk in, but halfway up they thought we were going too slow, so they starting jogging until they reached the hut. Two hours and a half...
Left: The south face of La Meije: 1000m of wet rock.
Left: Leaving the Promontoire hut in late morning. We were the last ones to wake up and left at about 8am.
Right: Nearing the base of the route. Oh my, does that look wet...
Left: So Ago and I started on Les grimpeurs se cachent pour ouvrir (7a) and Pantaleo and Benoit started on Les Épinards hallucinogènes which I'd already climbed 20 years ago. Here is Pantaleo on the very wet 2nd pitch.
Right: 3rd pitch, and still wet. According to the hut warden we were actually the first ones to attempt those climbs this year. Because of very heavy snowfall last winter, there's still snow on the ledges, hence plenty of runoff.
Left: Ago freeing the 7a of the 4th pitch, thankfully dry.
Right: 5th pitch, wet again.
Left: Ago on wet granite.
Right: Getting on the central ledge, easier and dryer.
Left: Panorama from the ledge. La Berarde is at the bottom of the valley.
Right: The tiny dot on the ledge, right in front of the snow patch, are climbers on the classic traverse of the Meije. Actually very slow or already planning for a bivy.
Left: Ago before starting the final headwall.
Left: Ago on the excellent orange granite of the headwall.
Right: Ago reaching the top of the route after a pitch so wet water was running inside our sleeves. There's actually another 250 meters to the summit ridge. But today we rap down, unlike 20 years ago.